Outside groups played a pivotal role the last time a president ran for reelection. George W. Bush raised $132 million for his campaign in 2003 and was sitting on almost $100 million in reserves. The eventual Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), raised $19.6 million from donors in 2003 and had $1.6 million on hand at the end of December, despite a sizable loan from his personal fortune.
But in the 2004 general election, liberal groups funded by wealthy Democratic donors came to Kerry’s aid, eventually spending hundreds of millions to attack Bush.
This year, conservative groups may have an even steeper hill to climb, given the track record of Obama, who shattered all records by raising $745 million in 2008. New FEC reports filed Tuesday showed that the president raised $68 million between his campaign and the Democratic National Committee from October to December and was sitting on $81.8 million in cash at the close of the year.
Nearly half of the money Obama collected came from contributions that were less than $200, a reflection of his longtime focus on grass-roots donors. But he also disclosed 445 “bundlers” concentrated in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and New York who raised $50,000 or more for him and the Democratic Party, accounting for at least $74 million in contributions.
Romney’s campaign, by comparison, says it raised $24 million and had $19 million on hand, much of which has been drained over the past month in a costly fight with Newt Gingrich and other GOP challengers in the early-primary states. Romney and other Republicans have declined to reveal their bundlers.
Romney has been helped by the super PAC Restore Our Future, which has reported spending $17.1 million on his behalf — including $10.7 million in Florida alone. The group reported raising $30 million, mostly from Wall Street and energy industry titans, with $24 million on hand at the end of December.
Gingrich, who had less than $1 million on hand at the end of December after counting debts, also has relied on a super PAC. The group, Winning Our Future, has collected $10 million from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife to pay for advertising in South Carolina and Florida.
Even lesser candidates are receiving a share of the large checks. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), who raised $13 million in the fourth quarter, is benefiting from a $900,000 donation from PayPal founder Peter Thiel to a super PAC to buy Internet ads boosting his candidacy. The group reported spending $3.3 million through Tuesday.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry — a former candidate who spent about $1,100 for each of the few votes he received in early contests — was propped up in part by a super PAC funded by some of his Texas constituents. Contran Corp. of Dallas, owned by billionaire Harold Simmons, donated $1 million to back Perry. Simmons and his company also gave $7 million to American Crossroads.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who also left the race, benefited from $1.9 million in donations his father made to the Our Destiny PAC.